December 19, 2010

Saint Elias (Ilya) Muromets of the Kiev Near Caves

St. Ilya of Murom (Feast Day - December 19)

Saint Elias Muromets of the Kiev Near Caves, nicknamed "Shoemaker" or "Cobbler," was from the city of Murom. According to hagiography, before taking his monastic vows Ilya was a warrior famous for his strength. His nickname was Chobotok, old russian for "Boot", given to him after an accident when Ilya, caught by surprise, fought enemies with his boot only.

St Elias died with the fingers of his right hand formed to make the Sign of the Cross in the position accepted even today in the Orthodox Church: the first three fingers together, and the two outermost fingers folded onto the palm [in contrast to the Sign of the Cross used by the "Old Ritualists" or "Old Believers"]. During the struggle with the Old Ritualist Schism (seventeenth-nineteenth centuries), this information about the saint served as a powerful proof in favor of the present positioning of the fingers.

He died in the year 1188, and his incorrupt relics are miracle-working. Even until now, three fingers on his right hand remain placed together for prayer, showing that he died at prayer. According to St. Nikolai Velimirovich: "This is a reproach to those who do not make the sign of the Cross with three fingers." He was glorified by the Church in 1643 as St. Ilya Pechorsky.

Popular legend identifies him with the famous warrior hero Elias Muromets, who was the subject of Russian ballads and of Gliere's Symphony No. 3. For more on this, read here.

In 1988, Soviet archaeologists exhumed Ilya's remains, stored in Kiev Pechersk Lavra, and studied them. Their report suggested that at least some parts of the legend may be true: the person was tall, his bones carried signs of spinal disease at early age and marks from numerous wounds, one of which was fatal. Below is a forensic facial reconstruction by Sergey A. Nikitin of St. Ilya.